In the years leading up to the Vietnam War, Old Man Chao moved to Connecticut to pursue the American dream. Chao found the small town of Cornwall, Connecticut and made it his new home. Cornwall had a population of 300 back then. Everyone knew everyone. Everyone was related to everyone in some way. Then Chao arrived downtown with two tattered backpacks, twelve-thousand dollars, sandals, and a smile that rippled the skin on his face. And from then on everyone knew Chao.
In the 60’s, three-thousand dollars could get rent you just about any house in Cornwall, Connecticut. Chao settled for a nice, one-bedroom house right in the heart of the town. He eventually got a job at the diner just a block down the road (Cornwall only had six roads total, one of which had been closed for construction for eight months). It must have been a mystery to the people of Cornwall how the only restaurant in town hired Chao. He hardly spoke any English. The only English Chao knew came from a small Mandarin to English dictionary he kept on the inside pocket of his robe.
“Hello,” Chao would say to his patrons, “Chao. What you want?” The people of Cornwall didn’t know what else to do but tip him well.
Cornwall would see Chao walking down the street with his ripply face and long yellow robe every morning. Every so often, the wind would pick up just enough to raise the robe and reveal Chao’s new blue jeans and Chuck Taylors that both fit him too tight. After work, Chao always walked straight to his home where he shut the door until the next day.
It wasn’t until the Vietnam war when Chao wasn’t wanted in Cornwall. “Hello,” Chao would say to his patrons, “Chao is me. What do you want?” The people of Cornwall didn’t know what else to do but ask for another waiter.
There were a group of men that moved into Cornwall a few months into the war. Proclaimed that they were “Anti-Savages” here to save the rest from the savages over in the Orient. They toted weapons, tattoos, and bad breath. Hairy arms, cargo pants, and strong jaws.
Chao wasn’t hard to spot in Cornwall although he had traded in his robes for six Polo shirts. All yellow. His face still rippled as always. One day, the group of men visited Chao at work.
“Hello,” Chao said to his patrons, “I am Chao. What do you want?”
The nastiest of the men spoke. “Listen here, you savage. If you think you can come and take advantage of this here capitalism we have, you are gravely mistaken. Go back and make mud cakes back in the jungle.” The men laughed and asked for a coffee.
“Yes. Coffee.” Chao brought back a pitcher and extra creamer.
A few days later, Chao was attacked at his home and beat to death with lead pipes. As the men grunted, sweated, and smashed Chao’s ripply face, they called him a savage and a threat to the peace in America.
When Chao didn’t show up to work the next day, his employer visited his house to find Chao’s mashed body. The town of Cornwall didn’t know what to do with his body. Cleary, he wasn’t allowed to be buried with the civilized folk down at the cemetery. So, with that in mind, Cornwall carried Chao’s corpse into the wood and buried him four feet deep into the earth. They put the largest rock they could find at the head of the grave and went back into civilization to never think about him again.
Except for the children. Ever since Chao came to Cornwall, the children were fascinated by his presence. Kids like Little Jimmy Rucker would have to pass Old Man Chao’s place on the way back from school. Jimmy and his friend Stephen would hide behind Chao’s wooden fence and watch him through the window. The kids sat behind the fence long enough to know that Chao was nothing special. That was enough to make him interesting.
Jimmy and Stephen spent their high school evenings observing Chao. At school, Jimmy would walk like Chao and try to smile his ripply smile. He would tuck his front teeth past his lips, squint his eyes and say, “Hello. My name Chao. What do you want?” Jimmy would laugh. Stephen would too, if only to make his friend feel comfortable in his ignorance.
So, when Chao was buried in the woods, the children of Cornwall found out exactly where in the woods he was tossed.
“It’s the yellow rock in the woods. The one in between the two Oak trees. You know, where Sandy and Charlie made out on Halloween?”
The largest yellow rock sits as the gravestone for Old Man Chao. The moss on it, the epitaph. The two trees stand over Chao tall and full. They let the sunlight sometimes come in and shine the yellow rock. That’s where the kids like to sit and play games. They jump and run around it. They talk and draw on it. Sometimes they tell each other who they like or what’s on their mind. Susan from seventh grade cried there once on Jessica’s shoulder because her dad was killed in the war. All this over Chao’s dead body four feet below. He keeps their secrets safe.
Jimmy Rucker and his second cousin Stephen Nichols like to hang around Old Man Chao. They visit him after school and on the weekends. “Keeps them sane,” they say.
“I don’t know Jimmy, I just can’t get behind the whole gun thing,” Stephen said in one particular visit to Chao.
“Look, Stephie. It’s not like I have to use it. Last time the Anti-Savages killed someone was like six months ago. And it was Chao of all people,” Jimmy replied.
“Yeah, but Chao didn’t really do anything,” said Stephen.
“He was a savage. Plus, you’re going off to college. Why would you care about what I do? I gotta get some experience with all that army stuff before I get drafted.”
“I don’t get you, Jimmy. You could have gone with me if you tried harder in college.” The two rotated around Chao’s hole in the ground. “A couple months ago you were saying that Chao was a mystic that was a million years old. Now he’s a savage?”
“You can be a savage and be wise at the same time. And that’s what Chao was. A dirty, wise, savage from Vietnam.”
“You don’t even know if he was from Vietnam.” Stephen sat on Chao’s rock and peeled off some of the moss.
“Have you seen him? Where else could he have possibly have come from?” asked Jimmy.
“I don’t know. Laos? Mongolia?” replied Stephen.
“What the hell is a Laos?”
“It’s next to Vietnam I think.”
A few months later, during the middle of the war, Jimmy was shot. Well, he shot himself. On accident. He was out with the Anti-Savages whooping around town late at night. He tripped, fell, and caught a bullet in his jaw. The doctors fixed him up as best they could, but Jimmy Rucker hasn’t been able to speak or eat since. All he does now is grunt and choke on his food. But he still totes his gun on his shoulder.
Stephen went off to California to study. He did everything but. He met a Vietnamese girl who he fell in love with. He attended rallies and protests. Beatings and police spray were common for Stephen. One time, he was dragged three city blocks through protesters by law enforcement until he broke free and disappeared in the swarm of people and picket signs. The Army couldn’t find him again even with all their fancy-shmancy tech.
Stephen Nichols came back to Chao’s grave years later in 1986. This was long after Jimmy fell and shot himself in the jaw for the second time. Stephen came to Chao’s grave at least once a year since he first started going as a kid. He considers Chao a wise man. Or at least that’s how he invisions him. He likes to lay down next to the plot where the body was buried and talk to him. Chao listens.
“Chao, I’ve always wondered where you were from.”
“I heard often that you were from Vietnam, but I have a hunch you were from Thailand or somewhere near there. But you didn’t act like it. It’s funny, I used to watch you walk around your house after school. You’d just clean, or read a book. I’d watch you at the diner before it was shut down. Did I tell you that? It was shut down a couple of years ago. Shot to bits by some of the Anti-Savages. Oh, wait. They call themselves the Anti-Communists now. They thought there were “Commies” in the diner and lit the place up. Anyways, I’d watch you just be a person. It’s just weird how similar you were to the rest of us. I’d dig you up and move you to the cemetery if I wasn’t so grossed out by your bones. You’ve been there for a while, Chao. You probably like it there anyways. Made it your home, I bet. Well, I brought you something. A housewarming present of sorts, however late it is. It’s in my truck. I’ll be back.”
Stephen came back and moved the large yellow rock at Chao’s head. In its place, Stephen placed a proper gravestone which read: HELLO. MY NAME IS CHAO. WHAT DO YOU WANT?